An iconic feature of Glasgow’s skyline, the Red Road flats, set to be demolished this year, have an underground world that has lain unseen for a generation, discovers Martyn McLaughlin
THEY are vast, steel-framed structures reaching up to the heavens, cities in the sky which afforded thousands an existence above terra firma. For better or worse, the Red Road flats have become an iconic feature of the skyline in Scotland’s biggest city, their looming presence a titanic symbol of a social experiment designed to cure Glasgow’s poor, yet which came to ail them.
But far down, deep below the dizzying summits of their towering blocks, there exists another life to the Red Road, a subterranean bolthole where, over a dram or a game of bingo, those from the 30th floor could mix with those from the third.
Now a new exhibition is to revive the underworld of the colossal edifices that have lain unseen for a generation, documenting a lost era when an architect’s dream had yet to turn into a nightmare. Red Road Underground, which opened yesterday, aims to chart the social history of the blocks, featuring stunning photographs and memories of those who lived there.
It comprises images, drawings, and videos, and the focus of the exhibition is a little-known space once home to a bingo hall and bar, where residents could reaquaint themselves both with one another and solid ground. the exhibition is part of the Red Road Cultural Project – a partnership between Glasgow Housing Association and Glasgow Life to recognise the legacy of the flats – and the timing of the project has particular resonance. Soon the hulking towers will be levelled, as the city’s authorities gradually bury all signs of the high-rise accommodation projects so in vogue during the 1960s.
When completed in 1969, the towers, located between Balornock and Barmulloch in the north-east of Glasgow, were heralded by the city fathers as a fresh start for the people of Springburn and further afield, removing them from blackened, overcrowded Victorian tenements to a fresh new civic space, complete with shops, play areas, lock-ups and landscaping. It is an era perfectly captured in the month-long exhibition, which is being held at the New Glasgow Society. In the making for two years, it is not simply a look at the imposing architecture of the Red Road flats, but the memories of those who called them home.
Photographer Chris Leslie and illustrator Mitch Miller were among the first people in nearly two decades to visit the underground space, found under the car park at 10-30 Petershill Court. Its star attraction is the Mecca Bingo and Social Club, a dilapidated yet poignant symbol of Glasgow’s past. With seating for around 1,000 people, the auditorium held prize bingo, part of national games, and boasted a function suite for weddings, christenings, and other social occasions. Buses brought players there from all over the city, and they descended beneath ground, took their fill from the buffet, and settled down for a game in the hope of victory (winners would receive a special Red Road cheque, which could be cashed at the Bank of Mecca). Next door stood The Brig, a nautically themed bolthole where punters could enjoy a drink and, appetite permitting, a roll and sausage.
Miller says: “Even in the derelict condition we found them in, the bingo hall and The Brig were signs that life at Red Road was full of warmth, good humour, eccentricity and plenty of surprises. For the last few years we’ve worked closely with the Red Road Cultural Project. When the New Glasgow Society asked us to exhibit at their gallery we saw an excellent opportunity to celebrate some of the work we’d done as part of the project.”
Indeed, it is in the little details that the exhibition truly comes to life, despite the ravages of time. Both the bingo hall and bar were decimated and forced to close in the mid 1990s when a fire in a supermarket above brought a deluge of hosewater down below. A generation later, the decay is evident, with pools of water dominating the floorspace, and the ceiling has collapsed in several places. Yet, as Mr Miller points out, it is a place of “beautiful desolation”.
The exhibition photographs offer glimpses of a heady past, showing a glitterball still hanging from the roof, and ticket stubs strewn across the seats.
“You can still sense the grandeur, sense your way back to what it was,” Miller says. “If I came across a mummified bingo player, game book and pen in hand, I would not be unduly surprised.”
In The Brig, meanwhile, the team discovered keys and glasses left on the tables, as if the drinkers had just popped outside for a moment, as well as paintings still hanging on the walls. Miller also drew on the anecdotes of those who frequented the hall to design what he calls a Bingo Dialectogram.
A charming sketch of the space based on residents’ memories, it also features their recollections of enjoying an evening out. One Red Road regular, Helen McDermott, recalls how the bingo hall was “grand” compared to others in the city, and says: “You could win prizes, or you could win money – you could save the vouchers up. I’d go every afternoon, sometimes nights. I liked quiet nights, there was a better chance of winning.
“It’s the excitement of bingo. You’re sitting skint, right, and you’ve maybe got a fiver in your purse, and you say, ‘Och, I’ll jump out into the bingo, see if I have any luck.’ I used to go with the last of my money and many’s a time I’d come out skint and have to borrow money.”
Another player, Mary McDonald, remembers the superstitious bingo enthusiasts: “There was a lot of people, fanatics. They’ve got to sit in the same seats and do the same things all the time.”
With the end for the high-rises now in sight, those charged with yet another renewal of Glasgow’s housing stock believe the exhibition – also featuring author Alison Irvine giving a reading from her novel, This Road Is Red – will allow the much-maligned flats to be celebrated.
“We’re delighted to be playing our part in celebrating the rich history of the Red Road flats over more than four decades,” says David Fletcher, Glasgow Housing Association’s assistant director of regeneration. “This exhibition is part of the Red Road Cultural Project, which is providing a lasting legacy of the flats for future generations.”
Soon, the long shadows cast by the Red Road will be lifted. Once they are gone, Glasgow’s skyline will never be the same, but the memories of the high life, at least, will remain.
• Red Road Underground runs until 2 March at the New Glasgow Society at 1307 Argyle Street, Glasgow.